The Role of Slavery in Roman Comedy

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The Role of Slavery in Roman Comedy
The theater of the Roman Empire was very similar to that of the Greek theater. Masks were worn by the actors to amplify their voices and to allow some actors to play two different roles, and women were not allowed to have roles in the theater. Roman playwrights such as Plautus and Terence borrowed comedic stories from the Greek theater, “Romanizing” them in the process. For instance, Terence wrote a play called Heauton Timorumenos or The Self-Tormentor. A Greek comedic playwright named Menander wrote a play with the same title. Since Menander’s version is lost, historians aren’t sure how original Terence’s version is. We can suspect that at least some of Terence’s version is merely a translation or a very slightly edited form of Menander’s. One of the most recurring themes in Greek and Roman Theater is that of the master and the slave. Almost every play by Plautus contained “the cunning slave” who outwitted or ridiculed his master’s action. George Duckworth described this relationship saying, “It is hardly possible that in real life ancient slaves had as much freedom as the slaves of Roman comedy, nor could they have been as outspoken and as impudent,” (Duckworth 288). Themes such as this sought to diminish the harsh reality of slavery and racism through comedy. Because Plutarch and Terence depicted slaves more as free men than as prisoners, their comedies fought the traditional ideas of slavery and discrimination.

Before discussing slavery in Roman plays, it is important to know the customs of the Roman Theater. All Roman citizens attended the theater for free, because either the city funded the play, or a wealthy, individual citizen paid for the production. These individuals might be running for an upcoming election, so they provided entertainment to the Roman people to gain favor with them. The better the play, the better their reputation would be. In general, the Romans of the time, combat and bloodshed were of the utmost desires for entertainment. The more realistic and gruesome the event, the more they enjoyed themselves. At the time, women were not allowed to have roles in the theater, and in the beginning stages of Roman Theater, women could not even attend the productions. Young boys played the female roles instead. But most interestingly, slaves usually made up the entire cast of a Roman production.

There are twenty surviving plays written by Plautus. The first instance of a slave acting out of character is in the play Captivi. In this play, Philopolemus, an Aetolian is captured and sold into slavery under an Elean doctor. His father, Hegio proceeds to buy many Elean slaves to trade for his son. He ends up buying a well-known Elean named Philocrates, who is accompanied by his own slave, Tyndarus. Hegio plans to send the master back to Elis to facilitate the trade. But Tyndarus and Philocrates switched identities, which would have caused the deal to fall through. Hegio is infuriated, and orders Tyndarus to the quarries. David Konstan explains the theme of this play as, “the conflict between a stern, conventional father and a son driven to defiance by the irresistible force of erotic passion. A common figure in these plays is the household slave, who risks the displeasure of his senior master…in order to advance the amatory interests of the junior,” (Konstan 59). Instead of the general storyline, Philocrates is the senior master because he is the original owner of Tyndarus. Hegio is the junior master because he has only recently obtained Tyndarus. Hegio still holds all power over Tyndarus, though, and this act of defiance would normally be punished with death for the perpetrator. Instead, Hegio is convinced by Tyndarus that his actions were purely out of loyalty, and not to offend Hegio. Hegio respects this and decides to let him live.

Another famous play by Plautus that contains the role of the cunning slave who is not punished justly is...
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